Cape Town – For many Springbok players, the traditional end-of-year tour of Europe is a bit of a necessary (revenue-generating) pain in the backside.
Coming at the tail-end of a southern hemisphere season that begins in earnest in mid- to late February, it is a challenging exercise from both a mental and physical point of view before you even weigh up the merits of the varying opponents stacked almost annually (World Cup years generally don’t see these tours, or certainly not full versions) in front of the Boks.
But it can also be a definitive cherry on top – or cake that flops in the oven, sometimes – in assessing whether the national side can be said to have had a successful calendar year.
This trek won’t be significantly different: a good tour (say three wins minimum from the four Tests, on an itinerary conveniently not featuring dangerous England this time?) would improve head coach Allister Coetzee’s shaky public standing; a less productive one only increase the enduring restlessness around his tenure.
My own prediction is that two wins would slightly crank up the cynicism -- while nevertheless just about keeping the wolves at the door, in order for him to begin the 2018 campaign at the helm – whilst a mere one victory … well, let’s just say his foothold would become tenuous to the point of a likely fall.
Er, shall we simply let perish any though of nought from four?
That said, it is perhaps the juncture where it becomes necessary to remind that Coetzee, as things stand, possesses an unflattering “zero percent” record from end-of-year missions.
Of course it’s a cruel stat when you consider that he has presided over a lone, three-game Test exercise in northern climes, which grimly rounded off an awfully sub-standard 2016 year, his maiden one at the tiller, as a whole.
His charges were comfortably beaten by both England and Wales then, and the real low point was also being pipped 20-18 by minnows Italy in the otherwise enchanting city of Florence.
The Azzurri feature again this time, a perfect opportunity to make thorough amends on a diary also involving Ireland (first up, a tough event spiced further by the Irish slipping to second favourites now for RWC 2023) France and Wales.
Give “Toetie” some credit: his did roll up his sleeves to think deeply about and work on the rot in the off-season, and by and large the Boks of 2017 have seemed an improved, more cohesive and energetic bunch, romping to a few reasonably thumping triumphs even as hiccups have also seldom been too far away.
But he still has plenty of convincing to do, when it comes to the ever-demanding Bok support base and the pundits who monitor the green-and-gold cause.
So there can be no doubting the importance of the next few weeks, performance-wise, on a tour that carries additional pressures for Coetzee: he knows all too well that his two predecessors in the period since South Africa last won a World Cup, Heyneke Meyer (most recent) and Peter de Villiers, had a pleasing knack of grinding out – often the best description, admittedly – favourable results on their Bok European winter pilgrimages.
Meyer boasts a particularly buxom win percentage of 80 after engineering eight wins from 10 northern-hemisphere tour Tests over his three years of them that excluded 2015 (RWC year).
On two occasions, too (2012 and 2013) he impressively oversaw no-blemishes tours in the results column.
As for De Villiers, he wasn’t far behind with seven wins from his 10 Test cracks at European year’s end: a still very tidy 70 percent.
Both men realised the importance of possessing sufficient “grunt” -- right across the park, really -- given the slower, heavier sort of conditions they expected to face a lot of the time; end-of-year Test in those climes are often not exactly free-running, try-fests.
It is in that area that I harbour certain fears over Coetzee’s squad choice; certainly his backline looks like being one of the collectively most lightweight units seen from the Boks in Europe in many years and perilously under-estimates, I believe, the extent to which Six Nations backs have advanced for broad mettle and competence in collisions and turnovers, not to mention tackle-busting running, more recently.
Be that as it may, Springbok fans -- and why wouldn’t they? -- like to end the rugby year, whatever its knocks or bumps beforehand, content in the knowledge that the European tour demonstrated seeds of a bright, or at least better, future.
It’s up to Allister Coetzee, he of the kind face and usually pleasant demeanour, to be a significantly better Santa Claus to compatriots this year than last …
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